King Hemp

Could marijuana's non-psychoactive counterpart be the next cash crop?

Doug Fine believes that hemp will save humanity.

The New Mexico-based journalist, conservationist and activist is probably best known for his 2012 book Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution, which took an in-depth look at how a growing legal cannabis industry is revitalizing the economy.

In his latest study, Hemp Bound: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution, Fine shifts his research to the potentials of marijuana's non-psychoactive counterpart.

Hemp can be used for everything from sustainable, non-GMO food to a new major energy source, and Fine argues that maximizing the plant's cultivation can solve several of society's burning issues all the while giving a bright, lucrative future to farmers in New Mexico and across the world.

"Hemp is really as big as your college roommate with the lava lamp claimed it was going to be," Fine says. "Or perhaps a little bit bigger."

Hemp's roots in the United States go all the way back to George Washington, who grew the plant himself in Mount Vernon. Still, its use is limited by government restrictions.

Though industrial hemp only contains 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol—meaning it's impossible to smoke and get high from—cultivating the plant is still illegal in 31 states, including New Mexico. But a recent provision of the latest federal farm bill allows states to cultivate the plant for research, as long as they pass their own hemp legislation.

New Mexico hasn't created its own hemp laws yet, but Fine is banking that the state Legislature will do so this upcoming session, convinced that the issue is bipartisan and noncontroversial. Fine is so hopeful for this that he'll be leading a full-day workshop in Santa Fe about the potential business opportunities local cultivators of the plant can expect to be a part of soon.

SFR caught up with Fine and discussed his two-year research that led to Hemp Bound, as well as the plant's future in New Mexico.

SFR: The last book you wrote was mostly about psychoactive cannabis. How did you get into the subject of hemp?

DF: It was while I was researching Too High to Fail, which was about a local, sustainable effort to bring cannabis aboveground in northern California that was supported by local law enforcement. The farmers that were involved wanted to centralize the cannabis processing in their community and provide aboveground jobs, taxpaying jobs, quality control. But they didn't know what to do with the stalks, the fiber—basically the unmarketable parts of the psychoactive cannabis plant. That started me off with the research that became Hemp Bound. While the energy component is probably the most important one to me, there's so much more. Seed applications that are healthy for food, fiber applications that are going to make hemp fiber into next-generation battery technology. I had the very good fortune of the book coming out just as federal law changed with hemp for the first time in 77 years, allowing cultivation in states with their own hemp legislation, which is important for us in New Mexico to get this session.

Can you talk more about how hemp laws changed?

On Feb. 7, President Obama signed the federal farm bill. And in that farm bill was a provision that allows hemp cultivation for research purposes in any state that has its own state hemp legislation, provided that the projects are in some way connected with an institution of higher learning or with some branch of the state's agriculture department. Now, until we see commercial hemp legalization on the federal level, which we very well may soon, it's just the 19 states that have their own hemp cultivation laws. I'm working with some folks to get very easy wording about New Mexico being in sync with federal law, but I think we'll see it this session in New Mexico, hopefully.

Even if New Mexico does sign its own hemp legislation, is hemp cultivation still going to be restricted in some ways before the federal government legalizes growing the plant?

Kentucky is probably leading the way in terms of state support for the industry, although Colorado is doing a good job as well. And Kentucky is interpreting the research provision very, very broadly. Farmers who grew this year were allowed to grow for any purposes and in any amount and sell their products. On the Colorado side, they actually are superseding federal law, and their state agriculture department issues whole commercial cultivation permits. Other states that are doing it right now, like Vermont, are taking it very, very warily. They're certainly not hassling hemp farmers, but universities are watching with interest but not helping.

In the book you say that hemp isn't going to be a slam-dunk in the marketplace before the plant's economy of scale is reestablished. What needs to happen in order for the economy of scale to reestablish?

Entrepreneurialism of any kind is always risky. Most new businesses, most new industries fail. Yet, hemp, right now, is growing 24 percent per year in Canada. It's going to cross the billion-dollar mark this year in Canada. There's an established market already. In low water situations, our farmers here, especially in the eastern part of the state, are struggling. Hemp has been shown to use half the water of wheat. So it's healing the soil, making your farmland better. The energy application that I'm really excited about is biomass gasification. Santa Fe has a plan for creating energy independence through biomass gasification that they already commissioned. So when we have a lot of hemp biomass produced for other applications, the waste material, the bargain and whatnot, can go to create energy independence for New Mexico.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about hemp?

I may be living in a bubble world or tunnel-vision world, but there aren't too many left. I was at the University of Kentucky Lexington campus hemp harvest, and I was standing next to the fellow that runs the hemp program at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. These are not tie-dye wearing, lava lamp owners. And they aren't even talking about just how excited they are about the economic potential of it. They're talking about how the hemp crop and its potential is bringing Kentuckians together from all realms of the political spectrum, allowing people to converse who wouldn't normally be talking to each other in the political arena. Because everyone loves hemp.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Fine speaks as part of the Carbon Economy Series at Santa Fe Community College at 7 pm Friday Nov. 21 and a full day workshop on Saturday, Nov. 22, from 9 am–5 pm

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.